By Igal Avidan
On February 28 exactly 50 years ago, a few hundred women began a historic demonstration in Nazi Germany — perhaps the only public protest against the Holocaust ever to be staged under Hitler.
Yet the demonstration is barely recorded, raising speculation that German historians care not to ask what might have happened if more Germans had spoken out against the genocide of the Jews.
In 1943 a few hundred non-Jewish women demonstrated for over a week in front of a building in Rosen Street, Berlin, where about 1500 Jewish men and children had been detained.
All attempts by the Nazi Gestapo failed to intimidate them, even threats to fire into the crowd. Within two weeks all the prisoners were set free, and 25 men were even returned from the death camps at Auschwitz.
Dr Gernot Jochheim, author of the historical novel Women Protesters in Rosen Street, which was released last month, says that the success of the protest refutes two very convenient arguments: "that the public didn't know about the deportations, and that it was impossible to resist the Nazis without being shot on the spot. People don't like to ask themselves why similar protests didn't take place earlier."
The arrests that sparked the protest were the idea of Berlin's Nazi leader Josef Goebbels, who sought to clear the streets of all Jews in preparation for the April 20 birthday celebration of Hitler.
Rounding up the city's 17,000 Jews began on February 27. Within a week 8000 had been deported to Auschwitz after being arrested at the factories where they were put to forced labour. Another 2000 were locked up in the three-storey building on Rosen Street, which formerly served the Jewish community.
Women began to arrive one by one, spreading the news by word of mouth. Hundreds soon stood in the street chanting, "Give us back our men!" Gisela Miessner, 69, was one of them. "All of us were afraid", she recalls. "But the desire to have my sick father back was stronger than fear."
One demonstrator was wearing a golden Nazi insignia: she was the wife of the Nazi mayor of Potsdam. Her sister was married to a Jew.
Up until the last minute before their release, there were various rumours flying around among the prisoners as to their fate: that they would be castrated, sterilised or deported to Auschwitz.
"The protest was unbelievable", says Gad Beck, 70, who was arrested with his father and sister. "I had never expected anything like
Fellow prisoner Gerhard Braun, 70, says he was both scared and proud when he heard about the protest. "I didn't know how the Nazis would react", he says, "but I was also proud of this demonstration of courage in a time when even a critical word meant death".
On March 1, 1943, Britain's Royal Air Force attacked Berlin, dropping most of their bombs in the area around Rosen Street but somehow missing the building where the Jews were being held. Women continued to arrive. Three days later some were arrested, but the more protesters were taken, the bigger the demonstrations grew.
On March 6, Goebbels gave orders to release everyone. Officially, the Nazis described the arrests as a "mistake". Goebbels wrote in his diary: "Unfortunately, the people took sides with the Jews. The evacuation could not take place at such a critical stage." It never did.
As to why the Nazis did not violently crush the protest, US historian Nathan Stolzfus believes the authorities were afraid to risk further discontent so soon after their defeat at Stalingrad and the continuing heavy bombardment of German cities by allied planes.
Jochheim writes: "After a violent attempt [to clear the street] had failed, the easiest solution was to release those arrested. The Nazis were sensitive to public protest against deportations of Jews. All Bulgarian Jews were saved, for example, as a result of mass demonstrations in Sofia."